Edinson Cavani rescues draw for Manchester United against valiant Newcastle

Both of these clubs hope to embark on bright, prosperous new eras. Both cannot yet be certain that they have escaped a far too familiar malaise. Newcastle United and Manchester United’s stories have defined this Premier League season so far, yet they reach something approaching its halfway mark – give or take a few postponements – by sharing a point that satisfies neither.

Newcastle, at least, can take a faint sense of optimism by ending a testing set of fixtures with this unexpected draw. Before Christmas, when outclassed as they hosted visitors from the other side of Manchester, it was tempting to write this game off and focus on a more favourable run to come. Yet at full-time, Eddie Howe was instead cursing that the match did not produce a precious victory.

That certainly seemed possible after Alain Saint-Maximin’s early breakthrough. It might have come to pass had he or his teammates capitalised on the many promising forays forward and made the most of being the better side on the night. Yet an Edinson Cavani equaliser and David de Gea’s heroics spared their visitors defeat.

United, meanwhile, could really have had no complaints had they lost. Suspect at the back, lifeless up front until Cavani’s equaliser, this was at times as abject as anything seen during the final days of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a performance littered with miscues and mistakes, and one that spoke to the mountain of work his interim successor Ralf Rangnick has to do to salvage a top-four finish from this season.

The first United mistake of many came within the first minute, when a momentary lapse of concentration by Harry Maguire allowed Ryan Fraser to dash in behind. The subsequent cross achieved little except, crucially, to sustain the pre-match decibel level. The roar around St James’ Park that followed carried the atmosphere through until, seven minutes later, it grew infinitely louder.

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Allan Saint-Maximin scores with a fine finish after Raphael Varane loses the ball

This was a soft goal for United to concede and one where the blame could be shared around several players. Take your pick. Was it Raphael Varane’s fault for being so easily muscled off the ball by Sean Longstaff? Was it Diogo Dalot’s, for showing Saint-Maximin inside onto his stronger right foot; Maguire’s for reacting too late to the Newcastle winger’s change of direction?

That collective breakdown should not take anything away from Saint-Maximin, though, given how ruthlessly he had exposed each of those errors, and the manner in which he took his goal imbued his every touch for the remainder of the half with added menace.

Newcastle sought him out with every opportunity to counter and United had no way of containing him. His nimble feet proved too much for United’s defenders once more shortly before the break and forged an opening for Callum Wilson. He scored but, perhaps perplexed by Saint-Maximin’s movement himself, had strayed well offside.

The threat that Newcastle were repeatedly posing might have been excusable for Rangnick if it was being mirrored at the other end but, against the worst defence in the top flight, United did not create a single chance of note. It proved a struggle to even string an attack together, so loose was the passing in midfield. Marcus Rashford, on one occasion, had to be forcefully reminded to play the direct, ‘vertical’ balls his new manager insists upon.

Rangnick had to change something and did, with Cavani and Jadon Sancho replacing Fred and Mason Greenwood, though the second half ended as the first began: with Saint-Maximin at the centre of everything.

Edinson Cavani celebrates his equaliser after coming off the bench for Man United

It was at that point that Newcastle’s talisman should really have established the two-goal lead that, despite having the run of play, Howe’s side needed. When a low cross bundled Saint-Maximin’s way, with an open goal to aim for at point-blank range, that really should have been that. If United were not blessed with a goalkeeper who has prenatural reactions, it would have been.

De Gea, rapidly becoming the only United player to emerge with any credit, somehow denied what appeared to be a certain goal and the second half was a clean slate once more. Whether his teammates would make the most of their reprieve was an entirely different question. For long spells, that appeared unlikely. This has been a team of individual moments for a long time now, though, and perhaps it is not surprising that has not changed after only four games.

That moment United required came when Fernandes found Dalot over his shoulder with a lofted pass out to the right. That pass and the cross that followed, pulled backwards and away from a retreating Newcastle defence, were United’s best moments of forward play all evening. Cavani was left with space to aim and fire. When the first shot hit the wall of bodies in front of him, the second on the rebound was poked into the corner.

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Following the old Solskjaer script, you expected a Cristiano Ronaldo winner to cap the evening off, but the fact that is his first mention in this report should tell you everything about his ineffectual performance.

It was instead Newcastle that came closest to snatching a late victory, and De Gea who rescued United again, spectacularly tipping Miguel Almiron’s shot from distance away after a Jacob Murphy effort had struck the inside of the post. Had it gone in, it would have been no less than Newcastle deserved.

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